School & District Management

New Research Consortium Targets D.C. Schools

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 24, 2013 5 min read
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Schools in the nation’s capital end up the guinea pigs for many new education programs and policies, but now they will get a stronger say in research to figure out which of those experiments really work.

The Education Consortium for Research and Evaluation, or EdCORE, is bringing together a set of research organizations with a presence in Washington to partner with district and charter schools, policymakers, and community groups to study how the District of Columbia’s often-changing education programs affect its students and teachers.

“What we’re aiming for is a Chicago-style consortium with the added benefit of a set of independent programs focused on improving outcomes in the city,” said Heather Harding, the executive director of the consortium, housed at George Washington University.

Chicago has had such a research consortium since 1990, and similar research enterprises have emerged in other cities, including Baltimore, Houston, and New York City.

The Washington partnership involves researchers from several institutions, including the American Institutes for Research, the RAND Corp., Mathematica Policy Research, Policy Studies Associates, Quill Research Associates, and the Community College of the District of Columbia.

Washington has long been home to top research organizations, and its schools are among the nation’s most frequently studied for everything from new charter models to teacher evaluations to curricula.

Teaming Up to Study Urban Schools

Alliances between researchers and education practitioners are becoming increasingly common in urban districts nationwide.

University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research (1990)
Partners: University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute, Chicago public schools, Chicago’s Urban League and Community Trust
Focus: Longitudinal study of schools with national applications

Baltimore Education Research Consortium (2006)
Partners: Johns Hopkins University, Morgan State University, and the Baltimore public schools, community nonprofit groups
Focus: Study and address the city’s high dropout rate

Newark Schools Research Collaborative (2008)
Partners: Newark, N.J., school district, Rutgers University-Newark
Focus: Urban school improvement

Research Alliance for New York City Schools (2008)
Partners: New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, New York City public schools
Focus: Help the district translate research findings into instructional practice

Houston Education Research Collaborative (2009)
Partners: Houston school district, Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, University of Texas at Austin, Texas a&m University, and the University of Houston
Focus: Closing socioeconomic gaps in educational achievement and attainment

Kansas City Area Education Research Consortium (2009)
Partners: Metropolitan-Kansas City school districts, Kansas State University, the University of Missouri in Columbia, the University of Missouri–Kansas City, and the University of Kansas in Lawrence
Focus: Student achievement and school improvement

Metropolitan Educational Research Consortium (2009)
Partners: Virginia Commonwealth University’s education college, eight Richmond, Va.-area school districts
Focus: Research, evaluation, and public-service projects

San Diego Education Research Alliance (2010)
Partners: San Diego school district, University of California, San Diego, economics department
Focus: Evaluate school and district policies

Los Angeles Education Research Institute (2011)
Partners: University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles public schools
Focus: Share student-achievement data and develop best-practices research

Source: Education Week

In 2007, the Public Education Reform Amendment Act dramatically changed how Washington schools operate. It gave control of the city school district to the mayor—instead of an elected school board—and established a separate state education agency. It created the mayorally appointed post of schools chancellor (filled first by Michelle A. Rhee, now the founder of the advocacy group StudentsFirst).

The law also required a comprehensive five-year evaluation of both the city’s district and charter schools, but a plan for the evaluation was not developed until 2011.

Political Tap Dance

EdCORE is still in the early stages of development: It does not yet have a website and is still drawing up its research agenda, Ms. Harding said. It expects to launch formally by the end of the year.

So far, EdCORE is more a confederation of research groups than a centralized organization such as those established in some other cities.

EdCORE researchers are building bridges across choppy political waters. Many of the policy changes to be studied—such as new teacher-evaluation system and school clsures—remain controversial. And the politics of the District of Columbia are complicated by a mix of city and state functions and a unique federal role.

That environment can make it hard to sustain research partnerships with schools, said Gina Burkhardt, the executive vice president and education director of the AIR, one of the EdCORE partners.

“In D.C., every time leadership changes, you have to renegotiate how these networks happen, [how] relationships happen, and how resources are put into place,” said Ms. Burkhardt, who is also a trustee of Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week.

For example, as the consortium noted in its first report to the city auditor, both the school district and Washington’s charter schools projected rising enrollment and financial needs in fiscal 2011, but education spending ultimately was cut during a “particularly strained” budget process “fueled in part by a primary election in which the D.C. council chairman was challenging the mayor, public disagreements over budget numbers, ... and negotiations over a new teacher contract.”

Several urban research consortia emerged in response to similar policy overhauls elsewhere.

San Diego’s consortium was created in part to study the effects of the district’s short-lived “Blueprint for Student Success” initiative, which included block scheduling and extended days.

The Consortium on Chicago School Research, considered a gold-standard model for research partnerships, began as an effort to study new school governing zones created by a decentralization plan.

“Instead of doing lots of isolated studies, … one study can inform the other studies,” said Elaine Allensworth, the executive director of the Chicago consortium.

“So if I’m doing research on leadership, that’s going to be informed by research that’s going on about curriculum and research on teacher professional development in the same schools. … That makes the research more useful,” Ms. Allensworth said, and could help get disparate education officials and community leaders involved.

Moving Forward

Ms. Harding, a former research director for Teach For America, said she is used to conducting research in highly charged political environments, and said doing so depends on building trust.

“I think you need to have a fair amount of transparency,” she said. “You need to have all your cards on the table going into a project.”

For example, EdCORE is now evaluating how Washington brought special education students back from private to district schools, following court criticism of how special education students historically have been evaluated and served.

Thomas B. Parrish, the deputy director of AIR’s education and human-development program, who is working with the consortium on the special education project, said researchers have been meeting regularly with district staff members to decide what special education topics would be the most helpful for the district to study.

“We had already gone in and pointed out 200 pages of problems with special education financing, and we didn’t want to do that again,” Mr. Parrish said. “We didn’t want this to be a ‘gotcha.’”

A report issued last spring by the New York City-based William T. Grant Foundation called for more researchers and districts to set up ongoing relationships focused on original analyses and problems of practice that are useful to the district, the community, and researchers.

“Consortia can help districts build a kind of capacity that the district is very unlikely to build on its own,” said John Q. Easton, the director of the Institute of Education Sciences, the federal education research agency, and the former head of the Chicago consortium. “It becomes a much broader civic conversation about the district and its problems and the solution to those problems.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 25, 2013 edition of Education Week as New Research Consortium Targets D.C. Schools

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